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Fragments of Childhood

Growing Up in Ancient Greece

By Maggie Riechers | HUMANITIES, July/August 2003 | Volume 24, Number 4

In the Greek myth of Hercules, the story’s hero demonstrates his superhuman strength and skill even as an infant, strangling snakes sent to his crib by Hera, who was jealous of Zeus’s affair with a mortal woman. In another myth, the baby Perseus is put out to sea in a box. Both heroes face and overcome mortal dangers as toddlers, perhaps as a warning of the perils of childhood.

Observing the lives of young deities and heroes in myths can give some sense of what everyday life was like for the average Greek child. The scene of young Achilles being brought to his teacher is depicted on one vase and another shows Hermes spinning a top for children. Yet our knowledge of what childhood was like in ancient Greece has been sketchy, based on what can be gleaned from comments casually made in poetry, history, and plays. An exhibition, “Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from the Classical Past,” on display at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College and supported by NEH, attempts to overcome the lack of textual evidence about childhood in Greece and learn about the lives of children through interpreting the works of art, artifacts, and grave site memorials. A catalog exploring childhood in antiquity accompanies the exhibition.

“No one tells the full story,” says Jenifer Neils, the Ruth Coulter Heede Professor of Art History at Case Western Reserve University. Neils is cocurator of the exhibition with John Oakley, chair of classical studies at the College of William and Mary. “We wanted to look at depictions in art to see what they could tell about children.” The exhibition brings together vase paintings, terra-cotta, bronze sculpture, and stelae--marble grave memorials to individual children who died young--and examines depictions of children and their activities. Included are artifacts relating to children such as high chairs and baby bottles in the shape of animals.

Although childhood is a universal experience, the specifics of children's lives vary from culture to culture, shedding light on each society’s values. “The study of childhood in ancient Greece can illuminate both what is universal and what is specific about child rearing, what effects this might have had on Greek civilization,” write Neils and Oakley in their introduction to the catalog.

Jill Korbin, professor of anthropology at Case Western Reserve University, considers the question: why study childhood at all? “Children are now no longer seen as mere passive recipients of culture passed on by their elders,” she writes. “Children are seen as having agency, and their own perspective on the world around them, as shapers of the forces in turn shaping them. . . . This exhibition . . . can help us to understand children in ancient Greece and help us to better comprehend the questions about childhood that are relevant not only in antiquity but also in the diverse cultures of the contemporary world.”

It turns out there was a “youth culture” in ancient Greece. “Half the population in fifth-century Greece was under fifteen,” notes Neils. “Greek art in many ways was the first to represent a child’s life naturalistically, showing them playing, and as chubby babies and in correct proportions as they grew older.”

Neils notes that a series of wine jugs, or choes, made for a child, showed the different stages of development he underwent from the smallest jug showing a crawling baby, to the next size showing a toddler pushing a cart, to a child playing, to a teenager entering the military. “These images reflect that they understood the stages of child development,” says Neils. “We thought that idea began with Erik Erikson.”

Whether life was hard for a child or fun depended, much as it does today, on which social class a child was born into. Certainly, the life of a child of an aristocrat or citizen was different from the life of a child slave. It is mostly the aristocrats who are shown on the vase paintings. Lives also varied from one city-state to another. Scholars have the most information from Athens and much of that comes from the fourth century B.C. Less is known about Sparta and other city-states. Information from earlier periods has come primarily from art on graves. And life differed for boys and girls. Generally, all children, until about the age of seven, stayed in the women’s quarter of the house. At seven, male children left to begin their education.

Typical school scenes show boys accompanied by their paidagogos, or male tutor, seated before their teacher, who instructed them in reading and writing. Other scenes on vases show music lessons where boys learn how to play the lyre. Athletics were an important aspect of Greek education and vases show boys learning to ride horses and boxing.

As the male children of aristocrats continued with their education, the lives of girls and slave children took other courses. Girls were instructed by older women in the domestic arts of cooking and textile making, and in dancing. Children of artisans and farmers became apprentices or went to work the fields. Slave children became servants. One vase shows a young slave boy accompanying his master home from a drinking party, where the man has overindulged. Although the painting is meant to be humorous, it illustrates the lowly tasks assigned to slave children. “It is interesting note here that the word for child Greek, pais, can also mean slave,” says Neils. “It indicates that their status was not all that different.”

Boys continued with their education until they entered the military at eighteen or twenty. Girls traditionally married by fourteen or fifteen and to live in their husband’s house. “ moving to their husband’s house, lived at home and didn’t go out in public,” says Neils. “It was a secluded life for women.” Men did not marry until their early thirties.

Despite what may have been a difficult life for some, Greek children--boys and girls--did get the opportunity to play. The toys they used and the games they played are amazingly similar to children’s toys and games of today. The Greeks not only had a word for play, paignia, but they personified it as the goddess of playfulness, indicating the importance that it had in their lives. “We are fortunate that alongside vases and terra-cotta statues that show images of children at play, we have the extant toys themselves, which indeed closely resemble those made twenty-five hundred years later,” says Neils.

The exhibition contains a grave stela of a girl with her doll and pet goose and displays ancient dolls with movable arms and legs, a rattle in the form of a pig, and pull toys. Also shown is a lekythos or flask showing girls spinning tops, displayed alongside an actual ancient top. Other items that have particular resonance with modern childhood include yo-yos, hoops, seesaws, push carts, swings, and dice--all of which look almost exactly the same as today’s versions.

Games are included in the exhibition’s section devoted to play. In vase images and terra-cottas, both boys and girls play an ancient version of blindman's bluff known as ephedrismos, in which one child carries another on his or her back. Both sexes play knucklebones, a combination of jacks and dice, which involves throwing astragaloi, the foursided ankle bones of sheep or goats, for luck or the capture of the opponents’ bones. Vase representations are accompanied by small terra-cottas of girls and boys clutching their knucklebone sacks as well as the real knucklebones made of bone, glass, and metal. “These have been found by the hundreds in ancient graves of children, presumably to entertain them in the underworld,” says Neils. Greek children played an integral role in many religious events, including participating in their own rites of passage and as symbols of purity for the community. Young girls raced in honor of Artemis and wove the peplos, or robe, for the cult statue of Athena on the Acropolis of Athens. Boys tasted their first wine at age three at a festival honoring Dionysus and served as temple boys, regularly assisting at sacrificial rituals. The miniature choes were specially commissioned for the wine festival. “These vases bear some of the most informative images of children at play,” says Neils. Children also had roles in private rituals. They took part in marriage processions, helped to mourn the dead, and accompanied older family members to sanctuaries.

One ritual designated for young girls was the aiora or swinging ritual. To atone for the suicide hanging of a legendary Athenian girl named Erigone and to prevent further suicides, every spring girls were placed on swings in trees. The idea was that instead of killing themselves as Erigone did, they would swing safely from tree branches.

What does the art on graves and vases tell about Greek families? Sculptural images of babies and of the nurturing of young children, grave stelae of mothers, nurses, and children, and vase paintings of family scenes provide a window into the private world of the Greek oikos, or household. In fact, the Greeks had no word for family. Rather, they used oikos to refer to the domestic sphere, including servants and slaves. One stela in the exhibition shows a woman, a nurse, and a child grouped together. The kourotrophos--a woman cradling an infant, not unlike the Virgin with the Christ child--is an ancient type in Greek art that became increasingly more naturalistic over the centuries. Such images were created from 1300 B.C. through the fourth century B.C. In general, grave stelae show images not of dying but of everyday life and they are the source of much of our imagery of ancient children.

This was a society in which abuses took place. Infanticide in the form of exposure was acceptable. “Sadly, some children in all societies fare less well that others,” writes Korbin. “Although the ancient Greeks are sometimes portrayed as a society in which parents cared so little for children that they exposed unwanted newborns, ‘Coming of Age in ancient Greece’ gives a more nuanced picture. Certainly some newborns were exposed, and some children were slaves. The works of art, however, also tell us of the efforts that Greek parents and society undertook to protect their children.”

One grave marker shows a tender scene: a relief of a father with his arm around his daughter. “What these grave stones show us,” says cocurator John Oakley, “is that contrary to popular belief, the Greeks loved their children much as we do. The exhibition brings forth the love and affection, and the grief they felt when children died prematurely.”

About the Author

Maggie Riechers is a freelance writer in Potomac, Maryland.

Funding Information

The Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire received $289,520 from NEH to produce “Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from the Classical Past.” The exhibition runs from August 23 through December 14 before traveling to the Cincinnati Art Museum and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. An international symposium on children in the ancient world will take place at Dartmouth College November 6–8.